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Shields and Brooks on Romney vs. Perry, Disaster Aid Deadlock in Congress

September 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including the latest debate among GOP 2012 hopefuls and the House showdown over disaster aid funding.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what did you think of the Republican debate?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought, Jim, that it wasn’t a good night for Rick Perry, who…

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with the Republican consensus that he did not do well?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree, yes, and I think Judy’s own reporting down there.

I would say this. Rick Perry is at an enormous disadvantage. Usually, a candidate, when he starts out or she starts out running for president, you can spend time in Kankakee and (INAUDIBLE) at the Lions Club or the Rotary Club polishing your lines, getting ready, kind of going through a shakedown cruise and boot camp.

He plunged right into it, and he had not, obviously, thought about running for president since he was a sophomore in high school, like most of these people have. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have written that book last year.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: So, he — and he not only entered in a hurry. He entered right at the top spot. So he got intense scrutiny coming in. And I think it shows.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that’s the problem? He just didn’t — he wasn’t ready to be the front-runner?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he’s had some time to study up. And he does have a staff. They prepared him.

And it hasn’t just been one debate. It’s been three consecutive debates where he’s been successively bad. He tends to be good in the first 20 or 30 minutes. He’s fine. Then he looks like he needs a little power shake or something like that, because he just runs out of steam and it gets worse and worse.

This time, he hurt himself not only by being inarticulate and unclear, but by saying some things about the illegal immigration, I think, for the paying tuition for the kids of illegal immigrants, that will sincerely hurt him and offend him with people. So, I actually think this will hurt him.

And the second thing to be said is, Romney is phenomenally better than he was four years ago. And there, what Mark says is in — in the inverse. He’s been running for five years. And so not only does he know what to say, but there’s a sort of calmness, and he has the ability to think more quickly on his feet.

So, even last night, when he had a chance to call Obama a socialist, and maybe offend general election voters, he…

JIM LEHRER: He didn’t do it.

DAVID BROOKS: … could see around that corner. And so Romney — one of the big surprises to me is how good Romney is, actually.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? Romney is really right…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Romney — Romney is good. Romney — David said five years. I would say eight years he’s been running. And he never stopped run.

And his book, in contrast to Perry’s book, which is sort of a cri de coeur, this is what I believe, I hate Washington, is Perry’s book, Romney’s is tested. It’s focus-group-tested, everything in it. So he can quote lines. It was intended as a campaign document and it is a campaign document.

I would agree with David that Romney’s had three good debates. I remember, in 2008, the buzzword was authenticity. People were looking for authenticity. And I think both McCain and Obama in separate ways represented what voters were looking for in authenticity in 2008.

I think that could be a problem with Romney. There’s a lack of spontaneity. It is very well-rehearsed. It’s very well-polished. And the other thing that was missing in this that struck me, Jim, is that this is a different Republican Party from George Bush’s.

George Bush ran for president as a governor of Texas, trumpeting the fact that he had gotten 50 percent of the Latino vote when he ran for re-election in 1998, and calling for No Child Left Behind, a federal effort to raise education, public education standards.

The one compassionate conservative on that stage last night was Rick Perry, when he talked about the daughter of an undocumented immigrant who worked her way through school while her mother might have been taking care of — working in a nursing home, and she got qualified to get into the university.

And Mitt Romney, who was born into the lap of luxury, says, how you can possibly give this away, $100,000 scholarship, to this illegal alien?

And I just, boy, I thought a meanness came through in that debate that was unappealing.

JIM LEHRER: You see meanness?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think — I mean, the party really doesn’t like illegal immigration. And they don’t want — they don’t feel that people who are maybe making $40,000 a year should be subsidizing illegal — and who can’t afford college should be subsidizing kids who came here illegally, their families came here illegally.

That’s not — maybe not my entire view, but I can see the point of view. The big question — and Mark raises it — is, how different is the Republican Party? Clearly, the people who are showing up at these things are different. Clearly, the Republican Party has moved somewhat to the right. They’re somewhat angry at the way the country is going.

But is it that much different than the party that nominated Bob Dole, John McCain, George Bush, George H.W.? If you look at the polling in New Hampshire, for example, I think Perry is fifth. So he’s not exactly catching on up there. And when the people — the people who are paying attention now are pretty angry. What about the people who start paying attention in the last minute? I suspect they will be a little more Romney-friendly.

JIM LEHRER: What — I was going to ask you about Judy’s point about the people who support Romney, at least the people in Orlando who support Romney, they do on the base of his electability.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: They’re already thinking about running against — they’re running against Barack Obama. They don’t think Rick Perry can do it. Maybe Romney can.

Do you think there’s validity to that?

DAVID BROOKS: You feel it in every crowd. They want Perry to win, and if they’re going to go with Romney, it’s not going to be out of passion.

One of the other things that is going on here is how much are debates going to matter vs. commercials. Perry came out with a commercial this week which I thought was phenomenally good. It was taking the Obama missioned accomplish speech, where he says, this is my economy, yes, I take credit for this economy, and then it says, OK, he took credit, here’s his economy. And then it has Perry being ultra-patriotic.

And maybe we’re in the day and age where commercials just out-trump debates, in which case Perry can slide through all these terrible debates.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.

JIM LEHRER: You do disagree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think voters — I think debates do matter because they feel then, rightly or wrongly, that they’re seeing the candidates unfiltered.

JIM LEHRER: And they’re seeing them side by side.

MARK SHIELDS: Side by side in a pressured situation, in an unrehearsed situation.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with you. The thing that struck me about the Perry commercial was the hope. There was optimism in it. And optimism is in short supply right now.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the idea that neither — none of the above is beginning to come back?

Bill Kristol, he did a special editorial for Weekly Standard today. He didn’t like either one of these guys and said that he wants Christie, or — Jeb Bush isn’t coming, and Mitch Daniels won’t run. Maybe Christie of New Jersey will come, because he’s — none of these people can win.

Do you think that’s going to go anywhere, or is this the — this the field, like — take it or leave it, friends?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think it’s too late for somebody to get in.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think…

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it is, given the dynamic that we’re operating on. Somebody can get in. Look what Perry did, essentially.

JIM LEHRER: Came out of nowhere, yes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Out of nowhere.

But I do think, Jim, that that’s a cry that continues every four years: This is a lousy choice. We could do better. Where’s the Jefferson? Where’s the Lincoln? Where’s the Kennedy? Where’s the Reagan?

And somehow we always — whoever goes through that process and emerges at the other end, we find in him virtues that his mother had ignored.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and late entries like Romney — I mean, like Perry or like Fred Thompson, they tend not to do well, for the exact reason Mark described.

And it should be said, among Republican primary voters, when you ask them, are you satisfied with the field, there has been a sharp uptick in people who are satisfied with the field. So, Bill, his view, shared by a lot of people, but more Republicans are saying, OK, this is our field. We’re fine with it.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s go to the two votes in Congress, yesterday in the House and this morning in the Senate, about — well, the bottom line is, are we going to have another “shut down the government” crisis?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I look at history, and I assume that we will just do just enough to stay stagnant and miserable. We never seem to solve our problems, but we never quite walk off the precipice. So I’m going to assume that’s going to happen again.

You know, substantively, I disagree with both parties. I don’t think we should offset our disaster spending with cuts elsewhere. I don’t particularly think we should do corporate welfare for electric cars either. So I think they’re both wrong.

But the main takeaway, I think, is the whole world is now in a very precarious situation. Europe is sliding off the edge of a cliff, banks in Europe really teetering, our economy really looking like it may go through a double-dip. And they’re fighting over this stuff.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s just unnerving.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, it raises the question. You think, what is it about — that’s going on in this country that the members of Congress don’t understand and don’t understand the polls that show them, what, 82 percent unfavorable? And they’re still playing the same games, like nothing has happened.

Why? What is it they don’t get? And it’s both Republicans and Democrats in this case.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Well, I think they came back chastened and severely defensive after the August recess, because after the showdown and the debt ceiling being raised, both sides were hurt, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House was hurt. The Congress was hurt institutionally, politically, across the board.

This is interesting. I mean, this really is — we have voted literally hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is — you’re talking about $7 trillion to rebuild, in fact, the storm-ravaged United States.

And I think — I think the Democrats, quite honestly, part of this is the chemistry of — they have been rolled, they feel, on every showdown, I mean, starting last December, in April and in August, and there was sort of a — I can’t say manhood, because that’s no longer an appropriate term, but there was a sense of, we have to earn and stand up and we’re not going to take this any longer.

JIM LEHRER: Show how tough we are, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And I think there will be a showdown. I agree with David. There will not be a shutdown.

JIM LEHRER: But there will be a show — so, but what is the showdown about now? I mean, is it still about little things? They’re not having a showdown about anything large, are they?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, it’s Pavlov dog time. It’s: We can do things. We’re fighting for you guys, for our base, those guys saying, we’re fighting for our base.

And right now, both bases are feeling pretty good, actually. Some of us are left out. But Obama came out, tax increases for the rich. Liberals are feeling pretty good. The Republicans saying, we’re not doing business as usual, we’re going to shut things down, conservatives feeling pretty good.

Whether we’re actually governing, that’s another question. But I do think it’s a combination of that. And the minusculeness of what they’re trying to do is just a function of being stuck in the little pressure zone in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s going to continue?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, I think that FEMA is going to run out of money. I think it’s a legitimate place to make a stand.

But I do think that there is an awareness that this doesn’t look good in the country and, at some point, that it could lead in fact to a — just a surge on the part of voters against incumbents in both parties.

JIM LEHRER: And that would, of course, affect anything that the Republicans do in terms of nominating their candidate. That push, whether it’s Romney or Rick Perry or whoever gets some momentum on that one, doesn’t he?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, every anti-incumbent. And there are people talking, as Mark just said, a lot — some consultants saying, we’re used to tidal waves going from one party or another. We rarely see a tidal wave against both parties at the same time.

JIM LEHRER: At the same time.

DAVID BROOKS: But that’s imaginable.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK.

Well, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.